Embodiment is a radical science, life-changing method, and lineage of ancestral wisdom that improves physical, emotional, and social well-being. Its key revelation is that the body has a mind—a power, presence, and awareness—of its own, and this awareness shapes us as much as we shape it.
Many people are aware that well-being requires a strong mind-body connection. What isn’t yet common knowledge is what the body part of that connection entails. Over the last decade, science has shed new light on the factors that lead to well-being, but some of the most important insights into the body’s true potential haven’t yet reached mainstream understanding.
From a young age, most of us are familiar with the five major senses that help us process the world around us: sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. Yet no one tells us that we have inner senses, too, which help us perceive the world inside our body and its relationship to the outside world:
- Interoception is the ability to feel what’s happening inside our body. We might sense muscle soreness following a workout, fullness in our belly after a meal, or the speed of our heartbeat. Just as the smell of something burning alerts us to a fire, our ability to note a change in sensations like heart rate can protect our health.
- Proprioception is the ability to know where we are in space and to regulate the space around us, particularly as we move. We engage this sense when we walk down the street, work out, do yoga. We signal it through our posture and how we occupy space. Proprioception helps us navigate the world, yet few people know how to develop it.
- Body agency is the freedom to move in a way that matches the mind’s intentions. We express this when we’re thirsty and get up for a glass of water. Without body agency, there’s a gap between the power of the body and our ability to mobilize it.
- Body ownership is the sense that our body belongs to us. This is me-ness, the awareness that the body in motion is our The relationship and sense of belonging we have with our bodies shape our identity and sense of self.
- Body resonance is the ability to feel empathically the experience of others. This sense manifests in the visceral response we have to someone else’s pain or emotions, and is the foundation of good relationships.
Together, these senses form a meta-sense that strengthens every other means of perception we have. They open up a hidden dimension of awareness, a valuable new way of experiencing our bodies, other people, and the world around us.
Our inner senses are the wellspring of every practice that enhances health—and which we often try to manage individually, like exercise, nutrition, and sleep. The term for the awareness of these senses—not just that we have a body, but what’s happening inside the body we have—is embodiment. To access these senses and cultivate them is what it means to be embodied.
Why is embodiment so important now? Before COVID-19, despite global advancements in medicine, we were feeling worse than ever. The World Health Organization states that by the year 2030, depression will be the single biggest global health problem. In growing numbers, we struggle with anxiety, depression, and addictions. We endure mystery inflammation, chronic pain, fatigue, and malaise. We suffer constant stress and emotional strain. We’ve tried everything we can to feel better, but nothing has moved the needle on our suffering. For the better part of a decade, things have been trending this way. And the current pandemic will give rise to even more mental health issues.
Yet now, in laboratories worldwide, researchers are studying the inner senses. Their discoveries are leading to a novel understanding of the mind-body relationship. We’ve been told for so long that we need to train the mind with meditation or psychotherapy in order to heal the brain and body. Or that we need to rewire the brain through medication or neurofeedback to change the mind and body. My work is rooted in the idea that the path to wellness involves more than therapy and medication. The science of embodiment gives us life-changing news: training the inner body actually changes the mind and brain.
People who connect with the body’s inner senses enjoy significant benefits. They have a greater sense of focus and willpower. They perform better at sports. They are more resilient in response to stressful life events. Being embodied also enhances mind-body health. It helps us regulate our emotions better. It has an anti-inflammatory and immune-boosting effect. It alleviates chronic pain more effectively than painkillers. And it’s more powerful than cognitive treatment in the epic struggle for a better body image. (Studies show that being present in our body makes us feel better about our body). These benefits result not from any aspect of our physicality—size, shape, weight, level of conditioning, or ability—but from the inner life of the body and the connection we have with its intelligence.
Our inner senses also influence the way we engage with our social world. From personal feelings like anger or sadness to social feelings like envy or distrust, emotions begin as sensations in the body. The ability to tune into our inner senses and connect with the body experience of a partner, child, or friend helps us be more empathic and less reactive. It makes our relationships more authentic and satisfying.
Our inner senses belong to us, but also connect to a larger social body. The sensory intelligence that balances emotions and improves relationships can help to address larger societal problems. According to social scientists, we tend to identify with people who resemble us and can harbor implicit bias toward those who don’t. The body makes a difference. Military organizations know this: When soldiers who have little in common move in synchrony as one body, they forge profound bonds. The same is true of dancers, sports teams, and people in group exercise classes. It also applies to many other settings.
The body is as social as it is personal, as public as it is intimate. Consider the news: the COVID-19 pandemic, school shootings, domestic terrorism, sexual harassment and assault, the erosion of abortion rights, systemic racism and prejudice, mass incarceration and police violence, and the separation and abuse of undocumented families and children. These are examples of forced disembodiment, which attacks not just the body’s physicality but its power, presence, and awareness, and the damage trickles through to every aspect of our lives.
Dominant cultural groups use forced disembodiment to acquire and maintain power over others for social, political, and financial gain. Boys and men of color are forced to limit body movement and how they speak or dress to make themselves appear less threatening, reduce the risk of police brutality, and ensure their safety. Women and those perceived as vulnerable experience epidemic levels of sexual assault and harassment. People with disabilities face body erasure in a world that prioritizes able bodies.
In these contexts, cultivating our inner senses is an act of reclamation and resistance. This hidden dimension of body experience restores a missing piece of our humanity and with it a true sense of meaning, purpose, and belonging.
The principles of embodiment have direct application to social justice and to the urgent problems of human suffering.